That Which You Can’t Not Do

Halfway through Dancer yesterday, I thought, suddenly, strongly, I am working the wrong kind of job. 

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Dancer is a documentary about Sergei Polunin, who was the youngest person to become a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, and who quit unexpectedly in his early 20s because of pressure, stress, not knowing what he wanted from life, being in his early 20s and being asked to perform like an adult, like someone who only can dance and not live an ordinary human life.

I don’t have the talent or passion for anything like Polunin has for dance.  I haven’t been asked to give up my entire life from childhood and pursue one thing, never having the chance to explore myself or other paths.  I’m not on Polunin’s level in any way.

But I do know what it’s like to feel confused and hopeless about your next steps.  And to feel wild, like something in you is on fire, but you don’t know how to direct that fire into something good, or even how to put it out as if that would make things easier.  I do know what it’s like to be very young and have people look at you and say, hey your life is put-together, you’re doing really well, look at your success, and to feel miserable, like you want to break the sky and jump out into something that you hope is better at best, or different at least. I know what it’s like to have people look at you and think they know you when you don’t even know yourself.

Watching Dancer brought up two radically different desires that I have always had, and pushed them to the front of my mind.

First, to find something that I can’t stop myself from doing.

Even after saying he would quit dancing after his Take Me To Church video, Polunin hasn’t been able to stop.  Dancing is who he is, he said.  He can’t not dance.  It would be the same as not breathing.

I want to find something like that, because I don’t believe there’s any other way for me to live.  I don’t know how to separate myself from work, so I’ve decided not to.  I’ll just find work that is me, something that, without which, I wouldn’t be me.

While dance is certainly not that thing, at least watching Dancer did make me think again of art.  Of photography, or filmmaking, or creative writing.  It is true that I have been writing since I was so small, out of habit, out of not realizing that not everyone did that all the time.  It is true that I have not left the house without a camera in many years, that nothing feels real until it’s been photographed.  It is true that I am never happier than I am in a movie theater when the opening credits start to play.  It is true that there may be some meaning to all of that.

I also saw Taipei Story the other day, and learned afterwards that Edward Yang didn’t start making films until after he had been to university in American and worked at a computer company for some years.  I collect stories like this about the artists I love, because unlike Polunin these artists wandered through life a bit first before finding that one thing.  That thing they couldn’t not do.

Which also speaks to that second desire.  Polunin, while a brilliant dancer, didn’t have a choice except to dance.  Now, at 27, he’s trying to figure out what he wants, he’s experimenting.

At 23, I’ve had so many opportunities to experiment.  For the most part, I would really like to stop and find one consistent thing to become really good at.  But I can understand the value, particularly after watching Dancer, in wandering.  It’s hard to know what you want and what you can’t live without until you’ve tried every other thing you can imagine.

At 23, most people tell me it’s too early to rule anything out, but I can tell you with 100% confidence that I am not going into academia, I am not going to graduate school (at least, for a typically-studied field like politics), I am not going to become a teacher, I am not ever, ever, ever become a businesswoman.

And while I would like to find one thing to do, I look at people like Polunin who didn’t have the chance to wander, and I look at Edward Yang, Christopher Doyle, J.K. Rowling, Yakusho Koji, Akira Kurosawa, and Toni Morrison, who did.

I’m not trying to look at life like an equation, or a game of averages, where this is the best age to start a career, this is the age when it’s not too late, this is the age when it is.  But seeing people like Polunin and feeling like I’ve wasted so much time, I also have to look at people not like Polunin and realize it’s okay because wasting time isn’t something that is really possible.

Everything can amount to something if you let.  After I watched Dancer, I thought, there are so many things I wanted to be good at and stopped doing, so it’s time to pick these things up and let them amount to something.  Anything.

Anything that might become something I can’t stop myself from doing.

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A Poem to Koenji

I’m becoming more like my dad.

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Like my dad, I forget that I’ve made coffee and have to microwave it and least twice in the morning.  Like my dad, I can’t go to sleep before I’ve eaten something sweet.  I recently suggested to friends, not jokingly, that we play the take a nap game.  And even though I hate when movies have overtures, I always stay to watch the credits because when my dad and I went to the movies that’s what we did.  Having time to see movies these past two days has reminded me of these habits, and that’s when I first thought, “I’m becoming more like my dad.”

My dad would look for the names of people he knew among the camera staff, the production assistants, the sound engineers, the people doing all the mechanical work of film.  I would look at the job titles and imagine what my life would be like if I were a gaffer, a location scout, a driver, and my favorite, a foley artist.

I still sit through the credits and I still think about the same things.  I thought about being a location scout last night when I saw Paterson, imagining someone driving through Yonkers and thinking, “Yeah, this is perfect for the bus scene with the two kids”.  And I imagined it today when I saw Toni Erdmann even though I couldn’t read the job titles in German.

I’ve had those things in common with my dad for a long time, but as I’m working more and becoming more established in a post-university routine, I’m becoming like my dad in other ways.

Like my dad, when I take a day off I really take a day off.  I don’t check my email, I don’t do any extra work, I try to make myself as unreachable as possible.

This is a new thing I’m trying.

Most of my friends and a lot of my coworkers think I work too much–too late, too many days outside of my contract, too intensely, doing too many different jobs.

I still disagree, but on these precious days off I’m really taking off.

And so I think I’m becoming my dad in my habits, and those habits are helping me become me.

I haven’t lived at home since I was 17, but I feel like this is my first “grown up” apartment.  The last apartment I had–my first in Tokyo–was the first place I lived in with no roommates, but this place is the first to feel like my own.  I think because I was more involved in the process of choosing it, because I picked the neighborhood, because I knew what to look for and what I wanted, because I did everything by myself unconnected to JET or family or friends.

I also don’t share this neighborhood with anyone.  My friends don’t live very nearby, and my office is on the other side of the city.

In the past two days, I’ve gone to the movies, seen a show at a bar, read in cafes, skateboarded a lot, dyed my hair, and went shopping.  I have maybe had 3 conversations with people that didn’t involve ordering or paying for something.

Living in Koenji is helping me feel more like me, and more settled, and more relaxed.  Another thing I have in common with my dad is working so much that I get so stressed out and become so tightly wound that I can’t speak to anyone and I can’t do anything other than finish what I have to do and then sleep.

So having days off where I can get a distance from work is liberating.  I can watch movies and imagine different lives.  I can start to establish an identity outside of my office, outside of JET.  I can find new places to go and new things to do and new ways to be me.

All of this is to say that I’m grateful for this neighborhood giving me a chance to forget about work and to remind me that there is life outside of the office, and important people beyond coworkers and students, and good memories that are worth revisiting.

So today, in my wanderings around this place, I wrote a poem to Koenji, which I will leave with you here:

There’s something in the air in Koenji today.

It feels like every melancholy piano chord ever played and it’s coming down

in the bright sun that’s soaking through the buildings, drenching the streets sopped with light.

People aren’t any more or less beautiful than ever

but the light is holding us all close and whispers all the right words in our ears.

There’s something in the air in Koenji today.

Something I felt in the narrow stretch of street down through my block

and something I felt

speeding down the small slope across from Daily Yamazaki

following along behind a loose group of cyclists.

There’s something in the air and it feels gentle and matter of fact.

Not everything’s gonna be alright but everything already is

if you’d let go of your own heart and

get out of your own head

and let yourself be part of that soft sky that sit about Koenji

and holds us all close.

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Catch You Later (You Jerks)

This is what I want to say to all my friends who are leaving JET soon:

This was never going to last forever.

We could get into pseudo-intellectual ideas about how nothing lasts forever, etc. etc. but practically speaking (and what I want to say is), JET is a very short-term program.  Everyone I know has used JET either has a springboard for something amazing, or a recalibration from the lives they had previously been living.  JET is not made to last forever, nor should it be.

And yet, I don’t think I’ve ever met a more important group of people.  We’re all pretty average, I suppose, but at least the impact you guys have made on me has been anything but.  So it’s hard to believe, but we’ve only known each other for two years almost to the day.  It’s not a long time by any measure, and we knew that coming in.  We knew, even when we met, that it would be supremely transient.

But when you’re living in a foreign country just after graduating university, working your first real, full-time job, two years feels like a long time.  You make friends quickly, and you get real deep, real fast.  It’s a survival tactic I suppose, and if you’re lucky it transforms into genuine love for the people around you.

For me, and I know for some of you as well, JET was the college experience I always heard about but never had.

I didn’t make so many friends in university.  My school was mostly a commuter school so it was difficult to meet people after the first year.  I also disrupted my own social circle by studying abroad for a year and when I came back I couldn’t really get back in.

So in university, I became really close with my professors, and even closer to my research, to books, to films…  I’m grateful for that time and all it taught me, but JET was a total shift.  Instead of finding books, I found people who challenged me and frustrated me and made me want to understand new perspectives.

And unlike books, people offer two-way communication.  You all have been there for me through weird and chaotic times, and have listened to all kinds of crazy shit and periods of panic.  We’ve travelled within and without the country.  We’ve gotten stranded in strange places, spent whole nights walking cities all around Asia, made grave traffic-related mistakes, gotten kind of sick and crabby in tropical heat, and ended up knee deep in snowdrifts.  We’ve been everywhere from gutter bars to Michelin restaurants together, and from middle-of-the-night walks in the ocean to some of the fanciest neighborhoods in the city.

Most importantly, it’s with all the people I’ve met on JET that I’ve started to grow into the person I want to be, and I owe a lot of that to everyone here.  In some ways, you all know the best version of me, even as you’ve seen me at my worst moments.

Of course, there are many people I didn’t get as many chances to hang out with as I would have liked, and there have been people who have straight up annoyed the hell out of me.  In fact, by becoming so much more socially active I have realized just how much I need to be alone sometimes.  And as great as our joint travels have been, I still like travelling alone better.

But none of the bad parts make saying goodbye any easier.

If I’ve been distant in these months leading up to everyone’s departure, it’s because I literally cannot compute the fact of people leaving.  I can’t say goodbye to you all.

Something we have often talked about here, in a foreign country far from our homes, is what “home” even means when you’ve geographically displaced yourself.

Some of you aren’t leaving, which helps, but certainly the majority of people I know will be out of here in less than a month.  Somehow the end of these two years snuck up on us, and as you guys prepare to leave, I’m wondering where my home will go when you guys go.  For me, home is the people you surround yourself with, and it’s with you guys that I’ve made Tokyo into a temporary home.

So what is home, now?

Are you still at home without the friend who is always finding stylish cafes and restaurants, always going to art exhibits and looking for beauty in small corners of the city?

Are you still at home without the friend who you know you can text about anything anytime, and they’ll not only respond but make you laugh and help you kill time or chill the hell out?

Are you still at home without the same group of people you’ve seen every week, who realistically you probably wouldn’t even be friends with in other circumstances, but who have become some of the most important people in your life?

Are you still at home without the friend who upended your life completely one day and who, though the timing was totally wrong, broke something open in your that started to shine brighter than anything?

My conclusion for now is that home has to reside within as well as in the people around you.  Because now that you guys are leaving, and my office and my neighborhood and my weekends are becoming less and less familiar, I’m trying to find some other touchstone.

But again, it doesn’t make saying goodbye any easier.

I recently moved, so even coming back from work feels strange, like maybe I forgot to leave a forwarding address for some important part of me and now she’s wandering around wondering where everyone’s gone.

None of us are really the overly emotional type, and I don’t want to change that now, so I’m not going to get all heartfelt on you guys.

But I will say this: the past two years feel like a complete lifetime, and while it’s been important for me on an individual level, so many of my good things come from you all.  You gave me so much, and I really never expected to come to like a group of people as much as I’ve come to like all of you.  I think I’m a better person having met you guys, and while a lot of us will lose touch in a few years’ time, I’m not about to forget everything you’ve meant to me.

So I hope you enjoy your lives, you goddamn jerks.  If you’re sad about leaving, it’s your own damn fault for signing the wrong part of the recontracting papers, but just know that you’ll be missed a whole lot by at least one person on this godforsaken archipelago.

 

Stranger in a Familiar Land

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The things I remember about Beijing are innumerable, and their collective usefulness is roughly nil; things that wouldn’t even be worth putting in a guidebook, or sharing with someone about to travel here and looking for tips and recommendations.

I remember, for example, the smells.  On the street, that particular acrid smell that I’ve never been able to figure out the source of–either pollution or cement dust.  But also on the street, the sweet, strong smell of fruit at night as the vendors all come out on their bright carts–the people with their fried noodles and stinky tofu and liang pi and mangoes, apples, cherries, pears, watermelon…  There’s also a particular, indescribable smell that grocery stores have here.  I couldn’t even begin to say what it is, other than, “Chinese grocery store” smell, but it’s immediately recognizable even before the store itself comes into view.

I remember also the particular dexterity required to cross a street, because your opportunity to do so and the green walk signal have a low chance of occurring at the same time.

I remember that a Magnum ice cream bar is 8 yuan and anyone who sells it for more than that is kidding themselves.

And I remember particular moments that are barely worth recounting–while walking down the street yesterday somewhere between Jingshan Park and the Drum Bell Tower, I passed a convenience store where I once bought an aforementioned Magnum and ate it in the dusty alley below Andingmen Dajie.  In the park earlier, I heard a saxophone and accordion playing one of those old patriotic American songs–not the national anthem, but one of those–and I remembered a time almost three years ago to the day that I passed that exact spot and heard a saxophone player playing that exact song.

I remember reading Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, by Mo Yan, while riding the same bus I rode today through the same neighborhood.  This time I was reading The Woman in the Dunes, and both times I chose that particular book because a particular girl recommended it.

And this, too, I remember: that in the spring here roses bloom everywhere; effusive sproutings of color in places where you hadn’t even noticed plants growing before.

IMG_4962The night I left, I was talking to someone about how we so often tie identity to work–we find worth and self-definition in our jobs.  Which has always raised the issue, for me, that if we take away our jobs then who are we?  If we don’t have a set number of tasks to do everyday for some bigger goal; if we were to isolate ourselves from everyday rituals and habits, who would we be?

Similarly, I wonder if there are versions of us that exist that are place-specific.  This is the me in Chicago, this is the me in Tokyo, in Beijing.  I want to say there’s an objective version of ourselves that exists no matter how many times we change jobs or addresses, but I have no evidence of that.

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Because the past day and a half, I’ve had a strange feeling being in Beijing.  At first I thought it was a lack of sleep, but it’s not (only) that.

There are so many things about Beijing that I remember.  It remains familiar enough that, with a quick glance at a map in the morning, I’ve been wandering freely jumping on and off of busses and subways just like I used to.

Beijing hasn’t become strange to me.  I’ve become the stranger.

I’ve been moving around for the past 6 or so years, but I haven’t had the opportunity to go back to the same place twice.  Certainly not after changing so radically that if I bumped into my past self on the street I wouldn’t recognize myself.

I thought about that today, in fact.  Sitting on top of Jingshan Park, where I always used to sit, if I could bridge time like I’ve bridged distance and sit next to myself looking out over the city, what would I say?

IMG_4960I wouldn’t even know where to start.  To say even one word would require so much backstory, I’d give away all the future without even realizing it.

Some part of me is still the same as I was then, or so I think to myself intellectually, but emotionally speaking I don’t believe that at all.  The me who used to live here might as well be someone I saw in a movie.  I don’t believe these feet carried me up the escalators of the Wangfujing Bookstore three years ago, and I don’t believe that this hand ever paid for vegetables beneath the subway line leading into Wudaokou station.

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What does it mean to go to a place you are familiar with and love and feel like you’re going for the first time?

It’s like one of those dreams where you’re back in your childhood home but it’s the you of the present, the semi-adult you, who’s there.  I’ve never had those kinds of dreams, but I imagine this is what it feels like.

In my mind, I’m casting around for something familiar to anchor myself here, to remind me of who I am.  I retrace my steps to how I got here to ensure that it’s not a dream–first I was in the office, my Japanese office, where I have my desk with its little plant and all the strange little papers amassed over a year from my old desk neighbor.  (I saw a photo of cherry blossoms today and tried to remember what it sounded like when someone called my name in Japanese, what the sunlight looked like in that moment.)  I was in my apartment, which is filled with art and photography pinned to the walls, and books and massive stacks of film negatives.  All of my clothes.  Then I was at dinner, and I had that out of breath feeling like catching a dodgeball unexpectedly, feeling the impact in your chest.

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But trying to remember myself through my job and my relationships in Tokyo brings me back to the same problem.  Do I only exist when I have someone to call my name in the morning before I go to class and tell me my sweater is on inside-out?

I worked so hard to reinvent myself that now I’m afraid I’ve erased everything that came before.  And as a result, to go back to the place where that past self existed, it’s deja vu and it’s cognitive dissonance.

And this whole time I ask myself–why can’t I come on vacation and enjoy the Temple of Heaven like every other goddamn person?

 

Notes of a Crocodile (A kind of review)

Reading Notes of a Crocodile is like looking at dozens of pictures of myself taken from dozens of angles over the course of a year.  Some of the pictures are straight-on and I think, “Yes, I feel this exactly,” and some pictures come from an oblique angle and say in my ear, “And this, too, is you.”

Notes of a Crocodile is the second novel of Qiu Miaojin’s to be translated into English.  I read Last Words From Montmartre in university, and I’ve been waiting for four years for this next book.  This could be the last thing of hers I’ll read unless I manage to become really fluent in Taiwanese Chinese, because she killed herself at 26.  Her body of work is small, but inestimably powerful.

Some books you read too early to really appreciate, and you have to revisit them later.  Some books you read later and think, that would have been so helpful for my five years ago self.

Notes of a Crocodile came at exactly the right time, so while I don’t know why it took an age and a half to be published, I’m grateful.

The narrator is a queer college kid, Lazi, who falls for a classmate against all her better judgment.  At no point is their love not fringed with pain, denial, and inability or unwillingness to speak certain truths out loud.  But at the same time it’s a love neither of them can escape from, because they know that some part of them each belongs with the other person.

The story of Lazi’s love for this girl weaves in and out of the greater narrative of her college years and the months after graduation, where she meets a few friends who she lets herself get close to, but where she mostly struggles to be okay with herself let alone anyone else.  All of her relationships reach heights of stunning tenderness and lows of desperate violence.  Nothing is uncomplicated, and often it’s all too much to bear.

One of the biggest obstacles Lazi faces in coming to terms with herself and learning to get along with others is the feeling of duality, which is something I intimately understand living in Japan.  She has one outside persona (like a person stuck inside a box), and she has her internal self, which is eroding under the force of her own denial.  A lot of this is tied to queerness, and her pain at accepting that she is queer.

She writes,

I never let others get too close and simply paraded a fake me that resembled their image of me.  Sweeping that other me in their arms, they led me in a dance within societal norms, along a trajectory based on a delusion…

It goes beyond queerness, too, I think.  She’s trying to figure out how to fit in in a heteronormative/sexual world as a queer girl, but she’s also trying to fit in as someone who feels things way more intensely than other people, and who clearly struggles with serious depression and anxiety.  Feelings of desperation and hopelessness that are, on the surface, tied to events in her life but stretch far below that into her heart.

And it’s serious, this account a girl fighting with these kinds of problems, and it hurts, and it makes me mad reading it and knowing that their environments devoid of support where people grow up feeling like something’s tearing them apart from the inside and they have no idea how to continue, yet can’t do anything but.

But she’s also a kid, and a writer, and parts of it are funny even as they are self-deprecating;

My social identity was comprised of these two distinct, co-existing constructs.  Each writhed toward me with its incessant demands–though when it came down to it, I spent more time getting to know my way around the supermarket next door than I did getting comfortable in my skin.

And Lazi is also a girl in love, and even though her relationships are fraught with myriad anxieties, she’s also dumb with the usual nerves from crushing on someone;

This, from a beautiful girl whom I was already deeply, viscerally attracted to.  Things were getting good… I was about to get knocked out of the ring.  It was clear from that moment on, we’d never be equals.  How could we, with me under the table, scrambling to summon a different me, the one she would worship and put on a pedestal?  No way was I coming out.

That is particular was an image that stuck with me as I had dinner with someone recently and stared at the lotus root in our salad and thought about how she was seeing some kind of glittering mirage of me and if only I could summon some substance behind that idea, then maybe…

Everything in this book reminded me of something: about myself, about someone I know, about some part of my life buried deep, even my own dreams, where Lazi says, “The dream goes on until I say, ‘Let’s not fight anymore.’  But she never responds.  She just walks out, leaving me standing there.”

The translator, Bonnie Huie, wrote that the book can be seen as a manual for young people (she says teenagers, but I think it’s even more relevant for people in their 20s, unless that’s what she meant by teenagers, in which case…)  It’s not a manual for how to lead a straight life (in any sense of the word, she says (ha)), but for how to survive.  It shows us how to live, even as death creeps through every page of the book.  Maybe especially because of that.

A few reviewers commented on the book’s melodrama.  One called it an account of “romantic obsession”.  To those reviewers, but my gut reaction (and continuing reaction really, now that it’s been a few days) is an ineloquent “Fuck you”, but being more mature about it–

A lot of older people wistfully talk about when they were young.  Especially here, a lot of people say, “Oh I’m so jealous!” when I tell them how old I am.  Others condescendingly say, yeah it’s hard when you’re young but you get over it.  Oh nice, to be young and think that all these things you worry about matter so much!

As a generally irritable person it’s hard to say which of those two reactions annoys me more but I’m going to go with the latter right now.

Of course, the vast majority of people survive their youth.  Many people experience a lot of crazy shit, and being young magnifies a lot of it so that the smallest thing can feel like life or death.  We call this melodrama, and it’s a speciality of those of us in our 20s and below.

Melodrama is a term that is often used pejoratively, but to experience melodrama isn’t an illusion.  At the time, it’s as real as anything.  And maybe it’s important to teach young people that these feelings will pass and they’ll get over whatever today’s tragedy is some day.

But it’s equally important to show people that they aren’t alone and that what they’re feeling is valid.  That other people are feeling it too.  That other people are not okay either.

For me, Qiu’s book does that, and does it more intimately and tenderly than any book I’ve ever read.  The idea of her book reaching people who have no one in their lives to support them, who have no idea how to make sense of what they’re feeling, iso heartening.

I don’t think I recommend this book to everyone, because as beautiful as it is it’s also bleak and harsh and intense.  But for the right person at the right time, it can mean everything.

How Not to See Aomori

While I recommend going to Aomori (I mean, if you want to) and I definitely recommend my ultimate destination there (the Terayama Shuji Memorial Hall; again, I mean, if you want to go), what follows is a how-not-to guide of my trip three Wednesdays ago from Tokyo to Misawa, Aomori.

After coming back from Taiwan and immediately getting to work again, I needed to escape Tokyo.  I needed to get out and see some other part of Japan and forcibly remind myself of how good it is to live here, how widely varied and rich Japan is, how much I love travelling here.

Most of the time I see the road on my way to work, the walls of this office, and the parts of Koto I run through every night.  I also wanted to see Terayama Shuji’s work.  Since hearing about him for the first time in Taiwan, I’d become really interested in his films especially, but knowing that he had had his hand in so many different projects and productions I wanted to see everything he did collected all together.  So one Wednesday, my usual day off, I woke up as early as I could bear to and took the subway to Tokyo Station where I walked up to the ticket station and said, “I’d like a ticket for the next train to Aomori.”

The great thing about the shinkansen is that ticket prices are fixed and all you need to do to get a seat is walk up to the counter and ask for one.  It’s drastically easier than flying, although usually more expensive.  The price is well worth the convenience, though, and the joy that comes from racing through the countryside smoothly, quietly, softly.

I ran to get coffee quickly, and walked up to platform 21 to wait in the gentle morning sun for the train to arrive, sliding soundlessly down the track.  The train attendants were wearing fake sakura pinned to their hats and shoulders and it should have been absurd but it was quite endearing.

I want to be sick of all the cherry blossom fanfare, but everytime I see a cherry tree in bloom it’s so heartbreakingly beautiful that I can’t get that made about the hype.  Those foolish flowers deserve it all.

Similarly, I always roll my eyes a bit when people bring up how unique, how amazing, what a national treasure Mt. Fuji is.  I remember in Sanshiro, by Natsume Soseki, one of the characters says something to the effect that the pride for Mt. Fuji is misplaced and ridiculous–it’s not as if the Japanese invented it, and it will be here long after we’re gone.

But as we rode out through Ueno, Nippori, Omiya, I saw Mt. Fuji gliding past against a small smudge of cloud and… yeah, it’s damn impressive.  One of my friends recently said, when we caught sight of it down by the ocean during a picnic, that it never looks real.  It just looks as if someone painted the perfect mountain across the sky while our backs were turned.

After Fuji, I fell asleep, waking periodically to the softest announcements of our next stops, quickly leaving the familiar cities of Tokyo and Saitama and going up, up, up the coast to northern towns I’d never heard of.

We stopped in Hachinohe and I got off.

Hachinohe looks like every other shinkansen station I’ve been to except for Tokyo–where Tokyo is utilitarian and massively crowded, everything jammed together in the smallest space possible, stations that are further afield tend to be, in my experience, new and sharp, full of small stalls and stores stocking everything you could need on a four hour train ride.  And of course, they’re packed with local specialities: posters praising the sights (waterfalls and forests are popular; pictures of food even more so), station-specific boxed lunches, and stands of mochi, dried fish, cookies, rice crackers, and whatever else that area of Japan has laid claim to as it’s unique offering to travellers.

I didn’t get anything special at Hachinohe, instead walking out of the station to the convenience store to get something that seemed important at the time, and then walking back to catch the local train to Misawa.

The shinkansen and the local train are generally coordinated so that when you debark from one you can embark on the other, but living in Tokyo (New York, Beijing, Chicago) I forget that trains in the countryside don’t come every 5 minutes, but every hour.  So if you debark and then go somewhere else for a minute, you may miss the local train.

Naturally, I had already passed the ticket gate when I realized that the next train was coming in an hour, and on the local side of the station there is none of the fanfare of the shinkansen side.  There was a standing soba place, and a small New Days.  I sat on a bench for a while before going to the New Days.  As I was paying, I laid my book across the counter to find my wallet and the woman asked, “Oh, are you reading Tawara Machi? Isn’t it difficult?”

Tawara Machi is a tanka writer who my coworker recommended, famous for her short poems about daily life that resonate strongly with that deep, meloncholy place we all seem to have in us.

“I kind of understand it.  The contents are really easy, and I can read kanji from Chinese, so it’s not so bad.  It’s good practice,” I said.

She asked where I was from, what I was doing in Japan, when I would go back to America.  Didn’t I have a boyfriend waiting for me there?

“I’m definitely not going back,” I said.  “And there’s no one waiting for me.”  In spite of her insistence that it only makes sense to go back at some point, she was nice and seemed excited to talk to someone.

With 20 minutes left, I walked to the end of the platform where I couldn’t see a single person in any direction and sang to my iPod loudly, shuffling across the concrete in the cold.

The train pulled in and I sat down, joined by three other people who were all much older, going I don’t know where.

It was maybe 20 minutes from there to Misawa, through unremarkable pine forests and past unremarkable suburbs where we stopped and almost no one got on or off.

In Misawa, there is really nothing.

Most of the stores were closed, in spite it being a Wednesday afternoon, and the only information about busses was vague along the lines of, “There’s a bus next to that soba place next to the station.  Details inside.”  There was a line of taxis outside the station, but otherwise the others who got off at Misawa disappeared down the hilly streets on foot.

I walked back to the station and asked the attendant if there were any busses to the Terayama Shuji Memorial Hall.  The attendant looked at me like I was asking for an elephant ride to the museum, and said that there were no busses.  “Did you try asking at the soba place next to the station?”

“Thanks,” I said, and wandered back out.  I walked up to the first taxi whose driver wasn’t asleep and asked to go to the museum, and we were off.

The museum is in a park to the north of Misawa city, stuck onto the edge of a massive lake.  The roads through the park wind gently along the irregular curves of the coast before climbing into a forest, part of which has been made into a large field.  In the distant, it looked like there were school baseball fields further into the park, but we stopped up a hill that carved down into the lake, next to the Misawa Historical Museum (?).

The Terayama Shuji Memorial Hall, architecturally, reflects the shape of his work (as I understand it, which is barely at all; but the vibes matched, in my mind).  The building is irregular, undulating concrete whose waves are joined by a glass bridge.  On the outside, there are small faces and other strange shapes embedded into the walls.  In the back of the hall, there is something that looks like a stage.

On entering, someone came out from the back curiously, as though not having expected to see someone there.  I asked for a ticket, and he explained the layout of the museum, looking up at me anxiously in the way people do sometimes when they’re conveying information but aren’t sure if I speak Japanese.  I thanked him and threw all my stuff down in the lounge area, which was filled with pamphlets about local artists and exhibitions.  A TV was playing an interview, silent and subtitled, with Terayama, and in the back was a counter that advertised lunch but seemed determindely closed.

The contents of the museum you can read about online, but it was everything I was hoping for and more.  It was informative, filling in the wide gaps in my knowledge about him, and it was filled comprehensively and creatively with his work and the work of people he influenced or was involved with.

The main hall in particular is why I call it a creative collection–underneath an elevated stage was a grid of wooden desks, apparent replicates of Terayama’s.  On the top of each desk was a clue about some aspect of his life with blanks you had to try to fill in.  Underneath the desks were the answers, and you could sit down and peer underneath at the backlit answers.

On the stage were props and scenes from his productions which moved and were illuminated in turns.  It was just creepy enough to feel right, considering his work, but organized well enough that it was informative.

Around the walls were photographs of his shows, of people he worked with, of his childhood, posters from his productions and movies, and a little underground library filled with the newsletter his theater company put out.

The best part of the museum, though, was the back.  “If you walk out the back door for about 5 minutes there’s a literature memorial,” the attendent had told me.  Not knowing what he was talking about at all, I walked out the back door and there was a path into the woods.  The path was clear enough on its own, but it was helpfully marked with posts at the tops of which were hands pointing into the forest.  Down the post were quotes from Terayama.  I stopped periodically and read them until I reached a fork.  One path said, “Don’t come down this way” and one stretched back along the crest of the hill, on the other side of which was the massive lake.

At this point in the day, the sun spilled harshly on the water and was reflected dazzlingly into the trees where I was standing.  I stood on top of a bench and looked down at the lake, which was large enough to send regular waves crashing into the empty shore.  Large enough to stretch beyond what the eye could see, dipping into inlets and winding around hills further out from where I stood.

I kept walking, noting the strangely regular appearance of ashtrays (one every 15 seconds; you would think they wouldn’t encourage you to smoke in the woods.)

At the end of a path was a giant sculpture of an open book with a sculpture of a dog sitting in front of it, its head bowed.  One the book were written two of Terayam’s poems, and on a plaque nearby they were translated into English.

I sat for a long time on one of the benches across from the book, watching the road below as a van drove in one direction, and then, some minutes later, another van drove in the opposite direction.

Honestly, I still don’t know too much about Terayama’s work.  I know all the basic biographical information, and I’ve seen his short films countless times, but beyond that his writing is beyond me being in Japanese, and his films are hard to get a hold of in their entirety.  I don’t know if people still put on his plays, and if so, where.

But the reason I love his work so much is how it makes me feel when I do get my hands on it.

I first saw his short films (and watched them countless times after) in a bookstore in Taiwan.  I went there for the first time when I was finally getting really settled at work.  I felt like I was a real part of the school, finally, and that I was fitting in pretty well.  I went from not having the nerve to talk to a lot of people to pretty much chatting nonstop with whoever was around.  I’d stand in the kitchen and make small talk with whoever happened to be there at the time, or I’d catch up with people at their desks.  I talked all the time to the person I sat next to, and another coworker of ours would often join us, sitting on the floor between us while people walked by and asked us, “What are you three crazy kids up to over there?”

But as much as I was grateful to have become a part of the school in a way that felt meaningful to me, something felt missing.  And that something was personified exactly in this bookstore, and I felt it the moment I walked in.

I don’t know what it is, but there’s just something in me that can’t sit still and it can’t make small talk and it can’t put on an agreeable face and be pleasantly sociable for too long.  It’s like putting on makeup at the start of the day, and by 2 in the morning you’ve got creases in your foundation and the wings of your eyeliner are missing.  It can’t last.

Working here, with all of it’s bright moments and all of the love and gratitude I feel for this place, I’ve realized how extremely not fit for an office job I am.  The kind of work I want is the kind that Terayama did–wildly creative, provocative, liberating for both the creator and the viewer.  I want to work in a space of raw honesty that constantly probes questions of who we are and how we should spend our lives, and examines everything we take for granted and takes it to pieces to build a better way of existing.

Putting on nice clothes and being presentable for 12 hours a day doesn’t jam with that ideal, and I was starting to realize that right when I went to Taiwan.  Walking into the bookstore, where Asakawa Maki was playing on the speakers and Terayama Shuji was being screened on the wall, it was like waking from a very long dream and remembering, “This is your reality.  This is where you’re supposed to be, right?”

Going up to Aomori reproduced those feelings, reminding me again of what is worth spending time and energy on, and what kind of work I want to be doing.

And it’s not an either/or situation of course.  I love this job a lot, and I don’t hate that I have to be here for another year.  But going to Aomori was important for keeping certain goals in mind.

I took another taxi back to Misawa.  The driver asked if I was satisfied with the museum, and I said very much so.  My ambition and will to live reaffirmed by the museum, I felt steady enough to reach out to another person so I asked the driver about Misawa.  As we drove along the lake he said that people came there in the summer to swim, and I asked, surprised, if it got hot in Aomori.  He laughed and said of course, just as hot as it does in Tokyo.  It just took a bit longer, which is why the sakura still weren’t blooming, when I asked about that next.

Outside of the museum, Misawa is famous as a base for the Japanese Self-Defense Force, and the airfields are used both by the SDF and airplane enthusiasts.  The whole time I was there I saw countless planes streaming overhead–small ones, like fighter jets or hobby planes, tracing arcs across Misawa before landing back at the field by the ocean.

At the station, I had soba at the soba place by the station that apparently possessed the bus details I had been looking for earlier, and watched a travel program on TV about Myanmar.  Several people came in to buy konnyaku, mysteriously, and one woman came in to ensure that her family could come by and eat later because the grandmother was a being a bit difficult that day but they had all planned to come down in the evening.

The train pulled in as I was walking into the station, and I boarded with several groups of junior high school students.  The inside of the train was a soft orange from the sun, and the fields and pines around us were slowly turning blue with dusk, like being dipped successively into watercolor paint.

I read Tawara Machi on the train–her poems about love, about the frenetic lives of high school students, about every little feeling we have and keep privately each day.  I’ve hardly been able to pick up the book since.  I understand now that it fits best on a quiet afternoon train through the countryside, and I can’t shake that feeling.

This time it wasn’t too long a wait until the next shinkansen, and I bought a chupa chup and coffee at the convenience store, squeezing past more junior high students who were standing in the aisles reading magazines or calling to each other over shelves about which chip flavor to buy.

The train back felt longer by half, the three hours passing painfully slowly.  I read and listened to music, and watched the names of the stops go past on the ticker screen inside the car.  This time the names were more familiar, though I still don’t know what any of those towns hold.

Getting back to Tokyo was jarring for the contrast, and so immediately instense in its energy and rush that it almost erased the memory of Aomori.  Going there for only a day, the trip took on a dreamlike quality anyway, and when I walked into the subway station below the shinkansen tracks it was like I had never left.  But it was easier to walk this time, and knowing that I had work the next morning didn’t slow me down as I left the ticket gate, walked down past the Marunouchi line, around that old smoking room that’s been papered over, and past the standing sushi place that I always want to try but never do.  I stood on the Tozai line, my backpack at my feet and a dozen people pressed against my shoulders, and took the local train home.

If you go to Aomori, I recommend not going for only a day because it’s just stupid to do that, and not not checking the train schedules at any point in the day, and not only going to one museum and going home.  I’m sure there’s a lot up there that’s worth seeing, and hopefully I’ll go up and see it sometime soon.  I always joke that if you go to Aomori but you don’t eat an apple, did you really go to Aomori?  Since I didn’t have any apples this time, stay tuned for further, better-planned escapades in this archipelago’s northern reaches.

The Handmaid’s Tale and Disavowing Feminism

Unsure if I was going to end up watching The Handmaid’s Tale, I read a ton of articles about it the week before it came out.  Aside from the articles praising its cinematography and acting (which, yes, absolutely; the show is incredibly well done from this amateur’s perspective), a lot of what I read focussed around the discussion of whether The Handmaid’s Tale as a story is feminist.

There have been a lot of big statements made by the cast and Margaret Atwood and then a lot of backtracking and qualifying and hemming and hawing and hedging.  If you look on Refinery 29, there’s a slew of articles that say yes, it’s feminist, and then no, stars say it’s not, and then, maybe stars say it is…  There’s been a big Twitter debate as well, apparently, which I’ve seen screenshotted on other sites because I don’t use Twitter.

There are many, many people claiming The Handmaid’s Tale as a feminist show, and the consensus at this point from those involved with the making of the show does seem to be that it’s a feminist show–it’s just not only a feminist show.  And I hear those qualifications, but I’d like to talk about why dithering over whether it’s only a feminist show or to what extent it reaches beyond feminism is more harmful in the long run.

First, about these qualifications.  Constance Grady did a really nice piece  in Vox on the historical context in which The Handmaid’s Tale was first written and Margaret Atwood’s complicated relationship with feminism.  And I really hear that one, because Atwood has said, according to the article, that feminism doesn’t go far enough for her and that’s her big objection.  Vox identifies Atwood’s perspective as more along the lines of intersectional feminism.

For Atwood, the burgeoning feminist community in the 60s and 70s was too much of a clique with a set of very specific ideas, some of which she supported and some of which she didn’t.  Not wanting to be grouped with a bunch of people in a totally different city pursuing a very particular kind of feminism, she distanced herself and her work from feminism as a whole at that time.

Today’s feminism, I would guess, would be more in line with Atwood’s own beliefs.  In connection with the show, Grady writes that The Handmaid’s Tale really reflects the intersectionality Atwood has long supported because it shows power as more of a pyramid structure and less of an us-against-them scenario.   In The Handmaid’s Tale, a wealthy white woman would necessarily have more privilege than a man of color, and a gay woman of color would end up worse off than Elisabeth Moss’ character even though really no one in the show is winning, per se, because that’s how power is organized in the real world.

So in that sense, I understand where she and the cast come from when they say it’s not a feminist show.  But that’s according to a definition of feminism that needs to be retired from this world.

It’s the definition of feminism that, in Atwood’s words, forbid wearing dresses and lipstick because to do so would be betraying your gender.  And the definition of feminism where men are never oppressed and only women suffer in a patriarchal society.

By those definitions, “feminism” doesn’t go far enough, in which case I could understand the temptation to start calling The Handmaid’s Tale a “humanist” story.  (Which they have done.  Which… is there a more vague term in this language than “humanism”?  And when did we stop associating humanism with men’s rights activists, anyway?)

The problem is that these are outdated.  Do people still believe in them?  Yes.  But that needs to change, and for a lot of people it already has.  Feminism isn’t what it was in the 60s, and to have that in mind when you say The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t feminist is to totally disregard the hard work that has been done for the past 60 years in the name of feminism.

By now I think we all know that men are also oppressed under the patriarchy.  To a different extent than women, of course, but a strict enforcement of gender norms doesn’t only hurt women.  And if you combined my lipstick collection with that of the other hardcore feminists I know, you could fill a bathtub to the brim.

Relatedly, a friend of my ex (who I am still friends with on Facebook in that uniquely shady way of staying connected that the 21st century offers) recently spent a year only wearing skirts and dresses to reclaim her femininity from a society that told her she didn’t have the right body to wear anything other than pants.

Is that, too, not feminism?  And for some people, if it’s not, then shouldn’t we work on changing their image of feminism rather than throwing out the label itself as not quite enough?

Feminism today is intersectional.  Feminism encompasses every expression of feminine identity, and embraces every form of gender expression (or intentional non-expression).  Feminism includes trans women and trans men, and every member of the queer community, and it seeks to dismantle toxic masculinity as much as it does patriarchal oppression of women.

Getting everyone onto that page, where the above points are a given, is why it’s especially important to call The Handmaid’s Tale feminist–to show what feminism can and should look like for those who are still a few pages or chapters behind.

Similarly, an interviewer asked Elisabeth Moss if she gravitates towards feminist roles and she said, no, she just plays interesting women.

My question is, why draw that line?  Why aren’t those interesting women feminist?  What is so uninteresting about feminism?

If we live in a world where this debate is even possible, and where people could conceivably be offended by a feminist label either because it’s too bold or not bold enough, then it’s all the more important for us to use that label.

The current political situation is one in which women’s rights are actually, seriously being threatened right now, and in which queer people’s lives are being threatened, and in which boys are being raised with toxic ideas of how to behave that reinforce the objectification and subjugation of women.  And it’s not going to change if we all sit back and go, “Hmm, but it’s not really feminist, see it’s just a human story about interesting women.”

There’s power in people uniting under and ideology, and if some of the most forward-thinking people choose to distance themselves from that ideology because it’s just not quite right yet, then where does that leave the rest of us?  Under what ideas can we unite, then?  Or are we doomed, like so many lefitst movements, to implode under the weight of our own inability to find a working definition for what we believe?

 

 

On My Mind #6

It’s been a while since I did one of these, and actually I wanted to write a bunch of individual pieces about some of this stuff but for now I want to jot it all down in a list until I have more time over Golden Week.

Anyway, here’s what I’ve been reading/watching/listening to recently:

  • A student recently recommended Riverdale, which is a new Netflix original based on the old Archie comics.  I was surprised by how good it is, and now I always take the opportunity to ask this kid what she thinks of the newest episodes so A+ for being an “””educational bridge””” or whatever, and A+ for being a sort of ridiculous, sort of campy, really engaging show.  Also the AV Club’s reviews (linked above) are really funny.
  • On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, I restarted my Hulu account (immediately after which I spent half an hour looking at the movie selection and yelling in despair because goddammit they took off 80% of their old artsy shit and I’m forever mad about it) just so I could watch A Handmaid’s Tale.  I read the book the summer after I got back from Beijing and actually wasn’t super wowed by it.  I liked Oryx and Crake, also by Margaret Atwood, way more I think because of the science angle it had.  And speaking of disappointments, all the disavowals of feminism by both the author and the cast are making me mad as well in a lowkey simmering anger kind of way, and that I would like to write a longer piece about.  But the show is really, really good and really, really brutal so I recommend it but just… be careful.  I watched the third episode just now and it was really difficult to watch especially given the current political situation in America and Europe.
  • After legitimately begging my coworker for five minutes to come to an after party yesterday, I recommended Jebiotto to him, trying to type it into his phone while we tipsily stumbled around Kameido.  I saw them live on Saturday and their vibe was completely amazing.  They’ve got a bit of a disco thing going on and man, check it out.
  • Not really relatedly, the same coworker asked how to describe the alley we were walking down and was wondering about the difference between thin and narrow.  I said, “This alley is narrow.  You and me are thin.”  The kids tell him he looks like a Pretz or Pocky stick, and when I laughed and said they made similar comments about me he said, “Okay, then I’ll be Pretz and you can be Pocky.”
  • Of all the movies I saw in Taiwan last month, La La Land wasn’t my absolutely favorite but for some reason I can’t get it out of my head.  This is something else I want to write more about, but I think the story of ambitious people plus the fact that I saw it in Taiwan has made it a really special movie for me.  I’ve been listening to the soundtrack all day today, much to the detriment of my phone battery and monthly data limit.
  • Then, I started reading “A-ko san’s boyfriends“, which is a manga someone recommended recently.  I don’t think there’s an English translation, but anyway it’s really good so far.  Being in the manga section at Kinokuniya really creeped me out though.  I love the main store but I still have a huge stigma against the manga/anime crowd, which is my own problem but.
  • While I was still in the main store at Kinokuniya I found this really great book of… Twitter poetry?  It’s just poetry, but the author publishes them on Twitter and then some of them were collected into a book.  A coworker recently recommended Tawara Machi‘s tanka poetry and because tanka are really short I’ve been using it to practice Japanese so now I’m on a poetry kick.
  • Finally, if you live in Tokyo and haven’t yet checked out the Docomo community cycles you should definitely give it a try.  My bike is broken so I got a subscription to the bikes and they’re really convenient (unless you live in Edogawa or Sumida) and best of all they’re the electric assist variety so you can go super fast.  You shouldn’t but… you can.
  • This isn’t a recommendation, but a request for one kind of.  If any of you readers out there have tried the American Cherry Pie Frapuccino at Starbucks please let me know how it is.  I want one, but I can’t get my mind around eating a pie crust on top of a frapuccino…

Home Is Where You Pay Your Bills

I love when it’s so hot out that you start sweating as soon as you walk outside.

On the one hand, it’s pretty gross, and I hear that from all of you who are rolling their eyes at me, but on the other, it means it’s summer and the days are long and the nights are warm, and I don’t feel like I’m developing muscle spasms from shivering for hours on end.

And something about work shirts with sleeves rolled up to the elbow makes me really happy.  That small detail feels good and right.

Today is the first really hot day in Tokyo, and I’m outside eating a cinnamon roll and listening to テコの原理which is the real reason I’m writing this post.

A few weeks ago I was walking around Yotsuya San-chome with my friend and we were talking about how, except for Totem Pole Gallery there’s really nothing of note in that neighborhood.  No sooner had we said that than we noticed a poster depicting a moth emerging from a chrysallis screaming.

The poster was for a band called Teko no Gennri and we went to see them soon a few days later at a tiny place in Shinjuku called Motion.

In retrospect, they hadn’t written their name on the poster or the times for any of the shows–just the dates and venues.  And of course the moth.

So we didn’t even know which was band they were in the line-up until this guy with really long hair and baggy clothes came rolling (literally) onto the stage from the floor and the band joined him to a cacophonous opening song played over the speakers.

They started playing what sounded like their set until the lead guy suddenly started singing, “This is a test, this is a test, please don’t worry”.

Somehow we figured… well, this has to be the moth poster band.

It’s hard to classify exactly what their sound is.  The music is gorgeous, but it’s not pretty.  It’s a bit rough but it’s not the kind of thing you mosh to.

My favorite song by them is Spring Summer Autumn Winter.  Right before playing this song, the lead guy (Gurupari, according to his introduction) stopped in the middle of their set and looked straight at me and my friend.

He said, “It seems we have some people from overseas in the audience…”  My friend wasn’t reacting so I punched her in the shoulder (I’m sorry!) and Gurupari said, “Oh!  Do you guys understand Japanese?”

As a side note, I wonder if we hadn’t understood if he would have just kept talking about us to the rest of the audience.

I yelled back that we did, and he asked where we were from.  When I said New York, he asked if we have seasons.  I just rolled my eyes and was like, “Yes, yes, we have seasons.”

He said, “Hmm okay, well I don’t know what kind of seasons you have and if you’ll understand this next song, but please give it a listen.”

Speaking to him a bit after the show and at subsequent shows we’ve gone to, Gurupari is a really nice guy in spite of the season thing.  I’m not exactly sure, but I believe that the places in the world that have distinct seasons outnumber the places that don’t.  Suffice it to say, Japan is not the only country with seasons, but that is a sticking point that is here to stay, probably.

Anyway, the most interesting thing about that interaction, probably, is that of all their songs that one is the one that resonated with us the most.  As my friend put it, it’s about the passage of time and how everything is always changing and it’s the worst forever.

That’s certainly something I dwell on too much, particularly during cherry blossom season where I think about my imminent death, all the people who aren’t in my life anymore, and how much I change from year to year.

My other favorite song of theirs is 実家, which translates to your original home, basically (according to the dictionary).  The place where your parents live, where you’re from.  The kanji literally means true home.

At the last show of theirs we went to, Gurupari introduced everyone in the band and said where they were originally from.  Everyone was from other prefectures, mostly quite far from here.  He asked the guitarist, who is from Aomori, “Have you gone home?”  The guitarist said no, he hadn’t.

Listening to that song for the past few weeks, I’m thinking about home and where a true home is.  It’s something I’ve written about before and will probably write about again because I don’t understand it and I don’t understand my thoughts about it and I just don’t know.

If you go “home” to your parents and feel like a stranger, is that home?  Can you be at home in a foreign country?  If both of the above options are ruled out, then where can you be at home?  Is it possible not to have a home?  Is life better or worse for it?

The song lyrics, from what I can understand (which is probably not much), talk about how you spend such a long time going home when you live so far from your parents.  And your parents tell you, and your little sister tells you, and your pet tells you, and your friends tell you to go home, but you can’t go anywhere so you make excuses everyday and the excuses don’t mean anything, but you just can’t go anywhere.  It can’t be helped.

It’s an especially weird feeling when your thoughts about home and your confusion about where and how and when and whether to go are echoed perfectly by someone in a country where you live and where you’re trying to maybe call home but can’t.

Going back to his original question about whether or not my friend and I could understand something that he evidently thought was inherently place-specific, I feel like I understand (to some extent) these songs beyond the literal level of understanding the words he’s singing.  They resonate deeply, across language and culture and age and experience.

When I’m away from Tokyo, no matter how happy I am to be travelling, at some point in every trip I think, “Ah I miss my very tiny sofa and all the constant sun in my apartment, and my desk with its plants and the frenetic energy of my office.”

Recently I’ve been wanting to run away to Hokkaido, change my name, and become a dairy farmer, but realistically I’ll miss Tokyo as the temporary home it’s become when I wasn’t looking, just like I miss my habits and routines in Beijing.  Honestly, I don’t miss Chicago so let’s skip that one, but I miss New York too even though I know that the New York I return to when I do return however temporarily will not be the New York I left.  It may, at this point, be unrecognizable, even.  I always think about what I’ll say when people ask where I’m from when I’m in New York.  New York is the answer, but I haven’t lived there for 6 years and I don’t think I would be able to act like a native anymore.

For now, and for the past 6 years, I think home is just where I am.  I used to have more complicated thoughts of home because of my ex, but I don’t agree with her at all anymore.  Home is just where you are.  It’s where I pay the bills.  More realistically, it’s where I forget to pay the bills, but anyway it’s where the bills are delivered with my name on them.

It can’t be anywhere else, I think, when no place feels exactly right.  At a certain point you just have to commit to your current intersection of latitude and longitude lines and let yourself be at home wherever you take off your shoes every night to go to sleep.

But still, when my parents, when my sister, when my dog tells me to go home… what do I say?

A final recommendation is my other favorite song by Teko, called おやすみなさい

 

Thoughts on Leaving

I’ve got a year and a half left in Tokyo and I’m not counting down the days.  There’s a reason I recontracted, and I’m going to be really sad to leave.  But I am starting to plan the next stage, so I wanted to write why I’m really set on leaving next year.

I feel like I have to say over and over, to myself and others, how much I like Tokyo.

So as not to appear ungrateful.

So as not to look like I’m whining from this position of so much privilege and good fortune.

So as to convince myself that it’s still true.

The more I say it the more desperate it sounds, and the worse I feel.  Who else is having this problem?

Everyone else manages to just live peaceably, and the exact location isn’t as important as the way they approach it, the people they surround themselves with.

Even looking at it positively, and even thinking of the friends I have who are some of the best people I’ve ever met, for (to) whom I’m so grateful, there’s something missing.

I think the thing that’s missing is me.

It’s probably less about Tokyo, in the end, than it is about my relationship to Tokyo.  I suppose a relationship needs two parties, so it is partially Tokyo, but it’s probably mostly me.

If I could, for my own peace of mind, give a brief account of things I love about Tokyo:

It’s a beautiful city.  It is probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived.  For all that it’s also the largest, it never feels overwhelming.  The neighborhoods are small and sweet and interlock perfectly and it just feels safe and clean.  In terms of architecture, not trash and crime.  I guess there’s less of that as well, but that’s not the point.

Aforementioned friends, from other JETs to my coworkers to the people I’ve met around the city.

My neighborhood is small and gentle.  If you make the time to talk to people they’re so friendly and welcoming.  Except for the people at the new Chinese place near my house who asked if I needed a fork for my tantanmen.  However well intentioned that was, screw you, noodle people.  I was eating for twenty minutes with chopsticks before you offered so…???  What are you thinking?

It’s very bikeable.  The number of times I got into some kind of traffic collision in Chicago are uncountable, but in Tokyo it only happened once.  I have been ticketed a lot, but that’s definitely my fault.

I have a good job.  There’s too much going on there to say more, but at the end of the day I can’t deny that it is a very good job.

There are infinite other little things I could list, but basically the atmosphere is comfortable and energetic, and it’s easy to spread out and be creative.  There’s so much to think about and feel and experience all the time.  It’s such a stimulating place.

Honestly, after writing all that I feel a lot better.

When I leave, I think I’ll always miss Tokyo.  People sometimes say university is some of the best years of your life, but I think for me it will be my years on JET.  What an opportunity, what an experience, what a space for so much growth.

But at the end of the day, there is something missing.

I think it’s mostly tied to my job and how I approach it.

My co-JET often jokes that I’m in deep with the school’s underbelly, which is pretty much true.  More than many JETs in Tokyo I think I’ve worked my way into the school really thoroughly.  That’s very much a product of circumstance and the good grace of my coworkers, but in small part it’s also a product of how hard I’ve worked.  I’ve been really lucky in that there is a lot of work, because for many JETs there’s not much to do and consequently there’s not much of an opportunity to prove themselves or show how hard they can work.  Fortunately, there’s infinite work for my school’s English department, so I’ve been able to take on a lot of responsibility and it’s paid off in how close I’ve become to a lot of people.

On paper, it sounds really nice but of course it’s not some achievement I’ve unlocked, or a badge to add to my JET accomplishments.

To put it another way, I’ve gotten in deep with a bunch of people who have their own issues and drama and quirks, some of which are deeply endearing, some of which are cause for concern, and some of which are just stressful.  With all human relationships, the potential for good things that help you forge a strong bond with the community and feel at home is equal with the potential for bad things that make you wish you could quit an entire city just to get away from a room of 40 people.

Recently things are weighing more on the bad side, even though some of the people I’ve met through work have become really good friends who mean a lot to me.

If their influence on my seems disproportionate, well.  Every day that I have work I work for a minimum of 12 hours, so the people I work with become extremely important.  I spend more time with them than anyone else in my life, and I spend more time at school than at home.  That’s not anyone’s fault but mine, but that’s the situation.

I sometimes think if I changed jobs then my relationship to Tokyo could be different.  It’s not fair to want to leave a city because of a few people in it.

But when I think of living in Tokyo past next year, it just feels comfortable and nice.  And I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, but I want a place with more energy.  Even though Tokyo is so stimulating, it’s very private and closed off in a lot of ways.

And that’s really why my job makes me crazy enough to want to leave.  It represents, to me, my whole relationship with living in Tokyo.  It’s wonderful and inspiring and it’s made me into such a better person, and I’ll always be grateful.  But both the city and my school seem to take every opportunity to remind me–you’re never going to belong here.  We like you, they seem to say, we like you a lot, but you’ll never be one of us.

The amount of work I have put in has begun to be highly disproportionate to what I’m getting in return.  To the point where I wonder why I try so hard.  For people who don’t see me as I am, for a job that I love but doesn’t make me feel alive and inspired.

Is it so important to belong?  Isn’t there something valuable in not being accepted on the same level as everyone else, when a lot of people feel caught up and stifled in strict social hierarchies?

Maybe.

But I just want to relax.  I want to live somewhere that’s a constant mess and where people don’t mind so much if you make mistakes or if you’re a bit of a mess yourself.  And a place where people aren’t constantly reminding you that their island is the most special and that you will never belong on it.

For me right now, that place is Taipei.  I suppose it could equally be Paris or London or Luxembourg, but right now it’s Taipei.  I like to think there’s something unique to Taipei beyond the fact that it’s not Tokyo, but I don’t know.

I hesitate to be that white person finding salvation in an Asian country, but the fact is that I studied Chinese long before Japanese and when I speak Chinese I feel relaxed and loose in a way I can’t manage in Japanese, with its tight structures and rigid grammar.  As fun as Japanese is, it feels like a harsh rattatat rhythm that I have to nudge along, trying to remember verb tenses and sentence particles and whatever the fuck.  Chinese just flows.

Not perfectly.  I mean, when I panic I just throw tones out the window and get lots of blank stares as a result.  But when I’m not panicking it’s fun to speak, and I like to listen to people laugh in Chinese.  It sounds happy and excited and full of life.  And even a difference as small as that means a lot.

And I think one day I will live in Paris because I’ve always wanted to, and I want to experience life everywhere, not just in Asia.  I don’t want to be that educated expat who flees to Asia because they can’t make it in the West.  I just want to feel everything, and right now Taipei is at the top of the list.

But reigning things in from my Grand Nomad Plan, there is something about Taipei that’s particular to Taipei that makes me want to come here (not there, because I’m in Taipei right now; the third long vacation I’ve taken here in the past year).

It feels, compared to Tokyo, much more relaxed.  Yes, there’s trash all over the place and people cut me in line at the convenience store sometimes and a lot of the really good places to eat are street carts or places that seem to exist in between buildings rather than actually inside of them, but that’s what I like, goddammit.

It reminds me of New York in that, when a city doesn’t have so many rules it makes everyone feel that much freer.  Sure, it’s nice to have super clean streets and very organized neighborhoods like in Tokyo, but it also feels like you’ll get in trouble if you breathe incorrectly there.  There’s even a correct way to open onigiri from the convenience store, which is charming until you think hey, maybe I want to open it a different way today.

I think one way to think about it is something a friend of mine said last night, about the difference between Japan and Taiwan.  I don’t necessarily fully agree with him, but to him, people in Japan are on the whole more interested in design (really expensive design) than art.  They care a lot about very expensive foreign brands and a neat, manufactured look.  Obviously that’s a big generalization that isn’t true for a lot of people, but I see his point.  I suppose there’s a reason Uniqlo and Muji have become extremely popular in Japan, whereas in the past things were a little more roughshod and uniquely creative.

One way of living isn’t better than the other, but there’s definitely one I’m more suited to, and it’s not the one I’m stuck in now.

My friend said then, don’t worry.  You have nothing to worry about when you’re 23.  You have lots of choices, and you can come to Taiwan next and then anywhere you want after that.

Everything’s going to be alright.

Someday I’ll be embarrassed about all of this like Goethe was about The Sorrows of Young Werther, but it feels important right now.

So I guess whatever happens next, here’s my account of why I can’t cut it in Japan, and why I’m going to move to Taipei and study Chinese and take so many pictures and sit in my favorite cafe and listen to Asakawa Maki all day, and I’m going to breathe easy for the first time in three years.